The United Nations' Security Council has authorised military action to wrest northern Mali from the control of al-Qaida-linked extremists but demanded progress first on political reconciliation, elections and training African troops and police.
A resolution adopted unanimously on Thursday (Friday, NZ time) by the UN's most powerful body stressed there must be a two-track plan, political and military, to reunify the country, which has been in turmoil since a coup in March.
The council authorised an African-led force to support Malian authorities in recovering the north - an area the size of Texas - but set no timeline for military action. Instead, it set out benchmarks to be met before the start of offensive operations, beginning with progress on a political roadmap to restore constitutional order.
The resolution also emphasises that further military planning is needed before the African-led force is sent to the north and asks Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to "confirm in advance the council's satisfaction with the planned military offensive operation".
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous recently said he did not expect a military operation to begin until September or October next year.
France's UN Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters on Thursday (Friday, NZ time) it was premature to say when the military operation will take place because African and Malian troops had to be trained and much depended on the political process and the country's extreme weather.
"Our goal would be to have a real political process which will allow the Malian army to go back to its barracks in the northern part of the country without fighting," he said.
"That would be our preferred option."
Mali was plunged into turmoil after a coup in March created a security vacuum. That allowed the secular Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalised by Mali's government, to take half the north as a new homeland. But months later, the rebels were kicked out by Islamist groups allied with al-Qaida, which have now imposed strict Shariah law in the north.
Many residents of northern Mali have expressed deep dismay at the timetable for the intervention, saying that the longer the world waits, the more entrenched the militants are becoming.
El Hadji Baba Haidara, a member of the Malian parliament for the northern city of Timbuktu, welcomed the resolution "in the hope of seeing our cities liberated as soon as possible".
"If we have wished for this resolution, it's not to wipe out our people with soldiers but rather to drive out the armed groups who occupy our towns," he said.
In a telephone interview, Timbuktu's Mayor Ousmane Halle said he felt abandoned by the West, and that only people who were not living through what he and his citizens were living through could consider holding off military action until next fall.
"A living hell," he said.
Coup members created new political turmoil earlier this month when they arrested the country's prime minister - a move that raised new concerns about the ability of the Malian military to take part in the operation to retake the north.
The Security Council strongly condemned the Malian security forces for their continued interference in the work of the transitional authorities, and stressed the need to expeditiously restore democratic governance and constitutional order.
As the council spent months negotiating over what action to take, an Islamist group behind public executions and amputations in northern Mali, Ansar Dine, or "Defenders of the Faith," expanded its reach.
The fighters, whose territory includes Timbuktu, have stoned to death a couple accused of adultery, hacked off the hands of thieves and have recruited children as young as 12 into their ranks. Heavily armed men also have attacked bars selling alcohol, and banned men and women from socialising in the streets.
Ansar Dine has been attracting new members because it is now seen as the only Islamist group in the north that can be brought to the negotiating table, analysts say. That is in part because their leaders are all Malian nationals who own property in north Mali and stand to lose the most if an international military operation succeeds.
On November 13 the African Union asked the Security Council to endorse a military intervention to free northern Mali. The plan, agreed to by leaders of the West African bloc known as ECOWAS, called for 3300 soldiers to be deployed to Mali for an initial period of one year.
The resolution authorises an African-led International Support Mission in Mali, to be known as AFISMA, for an initial period of one year but makes no mention of its size. It welcomes troop contributions pledged by ECOWAS and calls on member states, including from the neighboring Sahel region, to contribute troops to the mission. Council diplomats say the best-trained African troops in desert warfare are from Chad, Mauritania and Niger.
Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly called the resolution "a historic step," adding that his government "commits itself fully" to fulfilling its obligations under the resolution.
Yossoufou Bamba, speaking on behalf of ECOWAS, said the resolution "meets the expectations of all the African continent" and responds to the danger posed by the increasing presence of terrorist groups in the north. The African Union's UN envoy Tete Antonio called the adoption "a major step forward".
The final draft was a compromise between France which was pressing for authorisation and the United States, which questioned the readiness of troops from Mali and ECOWAS to fight in the desert. It wanted the mission to be authorised initially to train the Malian army and police and then to help recover the north.
The resolution stresses the importance of reconciliation, urging the transitional authorities to finalise a transitional roadmap to restore constitutional order, including holding elections by April "or as soon as technically possible".
The council asked the secretary-general to provide support in critical areas to help the Malian government extend its authority during or following a military operation, including in the rule of law, removing land mines and promoting national dialogue and regional cooperation.
The Security Council expressed its readiness to consider "appropriate measures," which could include sanctions against those whose actions undermine peace, stability and security, "including those who prevent the implementation of the constitutional order in Mali."
It also reiterated its readiness to impose additional targeted sanctions against rebel groups and individuals that did not cut ties to al-Qaida and its affiliates, including al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb and the Movement of Unity and Jihad in Western Africa.
As for funding, the resolution asks the secretary-general to set up a trust fund to support the operation and calls on member states and international organisations to provide financial support to enable its deployment.
The council also expressed its intention to consider providing "a voluntary and a United Nations-funded logistics support packages to AFISMA, including equipment and services for an initial period of one year".